Fictional Characters Who Appear Even in Historical Literature

This quarter I am busy teaching as part of the Humanities Core at UC Irvine. The course is inter-disciplinary, and covers literature, film, philosophy, history, and visual art. It’s a great teaching experience, especially since we have our students writing their own academic blogs about the material we cover. The theme of the curriculum is “Empire and Ruins,” and we are currently covering the Roman Empire, including discussion of the Roman historian Tacitus. During lecture last week, professor Andrew Zissos (who is also my dissertation advisor) discussed the speech of Calgacus, which is depicted in Tacitus’ Life of Agricola (29-32). Calgacus is described as a chieftian of the Caledonian Confederacy (which was an alliance of tribes in modern day Scotland), who fought against Rome around 83 CE. Prior to the Battle of Mons Graupius, Tacitus has Calgacus give the following speech, which voices a scathing critique of Roman imperialism:

“To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defense. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvelous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.”

Calgacus’ speech is famous for providing one of the most negative depictions of Rome in ancient literature. The Roman Empire cannot be satisfied by conquest either east or west. They rob the rich, and even rob the poor. Most distinctive of all, however, is Calgacus’ characterization of the Pax Romana. What the Romans call “peace” is not really harmony and prosperity, but rather a desert which has been stripped of life, so that it is no longer a threat to their rule.

During Zissos’ lecture a question arose about how Tacitus knew Calgacus’ words. He had neither witnessed the speech, nor discusses knowing anyone who had. Zissos’ response came as a surprise to many of the students: Tacitus probably imagined and invented the whole thing. Not only that, but we have no other ancient source that even mentions Calgacus. Zissos explained that Calgacus is quite possibly a fictional character. This is remarkable, given that Tacitus is even a historical author. If a historian like Tacitus could invent fictional characters and speeches in his narrative, what does this say about the possibility of fictional characters in the Gospels and Acts?

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More of the Same: Eric Bess Reviews Sean McDowell’s “The Fate of the Apostles”

Below is a guest post by my friend Eric Bess, in which he reviews Christian apologist Sean McDowell’s book The Fate of the ApostlesExamining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus. McDowell defends the apostolic martyrdom argument for the resurrection, which I have discussed in this previous blog essay. Bess critiques both the relation that McDowell draws between the persecution of the apostles and the resurrection, as well as McDowell’s interpretation of sources.


This recent book by Christian apologist Sean McDowell attempts a defense of the apostolic martyrdom argument for the resurrection. McDowell’s overall thesis is pretty much standard fare in apologetics. As he puts it (pg. 259):

Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 12.20.13 PM“The consistent testimony of the New Testament and the earliest sources shows that the apostles were witnesses of the risen Jesus and willingly suffered for the proclamation of the Gospel. No evidence exists that any wavered in their faith or commitment. Of course, this does not mean they were necessarily right, but it does mean they really thought Jesus had risen from the grave, and they bet their lives on it.”

McDowell devotes individual chapters to examining the evidence for the martyrdom of 14 chief apostles and assigns various levels of probability to the reliability of the traditions concerning each. Only five apostles receive relatively high probability ratings for their martyrdoms (that is, dying for their beliefs, not merely being killed), one apostle’s martyrdom is concluded to be improbable, and the remaining eight receive ‘plausibility’ ratings. Of those eight, one’s martyrdom is judged ‘more plausible than not,’ while the rest are rated ‘as plausible as not.’

There are two main problems I found with McDowell’s argument:

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Bayesian Analysis of Craig Keener, “Otho: A Targeted Comparison”

Recently I received feedback from ancient historian Richard Carrier about my previous review of Craig Keener’s article–“Otho: A Targeted Comparison of Suetonius’ Biography and Tacitus’ History, with Implications for the Gospels’ Historical Reliability”–which is chapter 6 of Biographies and Jesus: What Does It Mean for the Gospels to Be Biographies?.

Pic 1

Carrier uses Bayes’ theorem to make an inductive critique of Keener’s analogical reasoning that, since historical biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius state that they consulted eyewitness and documentary sources, we can infer that they did so, and yet, even when the Gospels don’t cite such sources, we can make the same inference, based on other similarities shared with these biographers. Carrier’s analysis can be read here:

https://civitashumana.wordpress.com/2017/09/22/bayesian-analysis-of-craig-keener-otho-a-targeted-comparison/

I’ve posted it on the sister-blog of this site, Civitas Humana, due to the emphasis on probability theory and epistemology.

-Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, Apologists, Classics, Guest Blogs, Historical Jesus, History, Philosophy, Reviews | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Review of Craig Keener, “Otho: A Targeted Comparison,” with Emphasis on the Citation of Eyewitness Sources and Textual Independence of Historical Biographers

Keener and WrightWhile doing research on my dissertation, which works to situate the NT Gospels within the generic spectrum of Greco-Roman biography, one recent publication (October 2016) that has popped up on my radar is Craig Keener and Edward Wright’s new volume Biographies and Jesus: What Does It Mean for the Gospels to Be Biographies?. Similar to my own research, Keener and Wright identify the Gospels as ancient biographies, but rather than aligning them more closely with popular-novelistic biographies, such as the Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance (which I think offer stronger parallels), they instead draw more parallels with historiographical biographers, such as Suetonius and Plutarch. Since I think that Keener and Wright have misplaced their emphasis, in this review I will lay out some points of contrast between the Gospels and the historical biographers Suetonius and Plutarch, which I think undermine the arguments presented in this volume. 

The present review will focus on chapter 6 of the volume–“Otho: A Targeted Comparison of Suetonius’ Biography and Tacitus’ History, with Implications for the Gospels’ Historical Reliability”–which is written by Keener himself. This chapter is particularly relevant to my own research background, since I wrote my M.A. thesis on Suetonius, and have likewise written multiple graduate papers on the Roman civil war of 69 CE, also known as the “Year of the Four Emperors.” In the chapter, Keener lays out three major sources for the emperor Otho’s brief reign–Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch–and highlights points of contact between the three accounts (while also noting that there are certain differences), which he argues demonstrate that a historiographical biographer, like Suetonius, drew upon earlier sources of information, rather than inventing material. Keener then makes the further inference that the authors of the Synoptic Gospels must have likewise relied upon earlier sources, and did not merely invent stories about Jesus. 

While certain portions of the chapter are interesting (such as Keener’s discussion on pp. 162-166 of how even Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch sometimes contradict each other, due to differences of genre, the role of memory, and rhetorical emphasis), I overall think that his targeted comparison does not offer a very good analogy for the Synoptic Gospels. In this review, I will focus on how historiographical biographers are far more prone to cite their written and oral sources (including eyewitnesses) than anything that is found in the Gospels, and likewise on how there is a much stronger case to be made that Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch are actually independent accounts (adding more weight to the inference that they are independently corroborating historical events). I will also discuss how the Synoptic Gospels are far more textually dependent (suggesting that they don’t have as many independent sources of information, and sometimes are even redacting each other). As a final point, I will respond to some criticism that Keener presents against comparing the Gospels with the genre of the ancient novel.

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Change of Plans

I have some unfortunate news to report, followed by some good news. The unfortunate news is that my debate with Andrew Pitts, which was scheduled for next week, fell through, due to the fact that we couldn’t agree upon the debate prompt for the discussion. I had wanted the discussion to focus on 1) the literary genre of the Gospels, and 2) how the question of genre affects their historical reliability. On the other hand, Pitts wanted to focus solely on the question of genre, noting that he wasn’t sure if his research lends itself to answering the question of historical reliability. Since I thought that a debate solely on genre, without the component of historical reliability, would be of less interest to readers of this blog, and since we couldn’t agree upon the direction of the conversation, the debate was canceled.

The good news, however, is that cancelling the debate frees me up to focus on other work, and I have decided to use that time to write book reviews. I noted in my previous announcement about the debate, that there are four new publications by Christian authors on my radar, one of which is Craig Keener’s recent volume Biographies and Jesus: What Does It Mean for the Gospels to Be Biographies?. Since my dissertation focuses on situating the Gospels within the genre of ancient biography, Keener’s new volume is certainly of interest to my current research. I decided to review chapter 6 of the volume–“Otho: A Targeted Comparison of Suetonius’ Biography and Tacitus’ History, with Implications for the Gospels’ Historical Reliability”–which is written by Keener himself. This chapter is particularly relevant to my own research background, since I wrote my M.A. thesis on Suetonius, and have likewise written multiple graduate papers on the Roman civil war of 69 CE, also dubbed the “Year of the Four Emperors.” My review of Keener’s chapter can be found in the subsequent post.

-Matthew Ferguson

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Upcoming Debate with Andrew Pitts on the Genre of the Gospels

[This debate unfortunately had to be canceled, due to the fact that Pitts and I could not agree upon the main prompt for the discussion, which I discuss here. Cancelling the debate, however, has freed up my time to work on reviewing some of the books that I mention below. I just published a review of a chapter in Keener’s new volume, which can be read here. -MWF 9/2/17]

I have been quite busy this summer with a number of professional projects and changes in my personal life. I just finished a 12,000 word academic article and moved to a new apartment, and I likewise plan to spend the remainder of the summer (which extends all the way to late-September in the UC system) working hard on my dissertation.

andrew.pittsTo keep posting new content, however, I have been scheduling debates on the Bible and Christian origins. I just posted a recording of my debate in Riverside last month on the historical reliability of the Bible, and I now have another debate to announce for this following month. On September 7th, from 5-6pm CST, I’ll be holding a debate with Christian NT scholar Andrew Pitts on the genre of the Gospels, and how the question of genre affects their historical reliability. The debate will be moderated by Evan McClanahan, who is the pastor of First Evangelical Lutheran Church, and hosts a radio debate series on topics relating to apologetics and Christianity. I’ve participated as part of McClanahan’s radio series before, when I held a debate on the dating of the Gospels with Christian NT scholar Craig Evans last year. My debate with Pitts can be listened to live at the following link:

www.kpft.org/listen

I’ve been following Pitts’ scholarship for a number of years now, and although I don’t always agree with him, I have found his work to be helpful for my own research. In particular, I like his article “Source Citation in Greek Historiography and in Luke(-Acts),” since it lays out and organizes several of the ways that Greek historians would cite their oral and written sources.

I had the chance to meet Pitts at the annual meeting of the SBL in 2015, when he was presenting a paper for the Mark Seminar, at the same time as NT scholar Dennis MacDonald, whose presentation I summarized here. I almost ran into Pitts again during my presentation at the Pacific Coast SBL meeting in 2016, during which we were both scheduled to present as part of the NT Gospels and Acts section. I had anticipated that we were going to have a lively debate, since our two papers argued for relatively opposing views. Due to the circumstances at the time, I was actually a bit apprehensive about such a debate, not because it wouldn’t generate good dialogue, but because I was holding my dissertation prospectus defense later that day (which I successfully passed), and was thus not looking forward to defending against criticism likewise in the morning!

Pitts had to cancel his presentation for personal reasons that day, however, and thus any debate between us was postponed. During the 2017 Pacific Coast SBL meeting, Pitts resubmitted the same paper, and, although I was scheduled to present for a different section, I was planning to attend the NT Gospels and Acts section in order hear his presentation and perhaps pose some critical questions. This time for personal reasons on my end, however, I had to cancel my presentation for the 2017 meeting and did not attend.

For a couple of years now, therefore, I have been anticipating a debate between Pitts and myself, and it thus makes sense that we will be holding this radio debate in September. I anticipate that it will be far more technical and nuanced than my debate last month, and so I look forward to a constructive dialogue.

keenerIn the meantime, I want to post an update about four apologetic books that have been on my radar, but which I have been too busy to write reviews of. The first two deal with ancient biography, which is one of my areas of specialization: Craig Keener’s Biographies and JesusWhat Does It Mean for the Gospels to Be Biographies?, and Mike Licona’s Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography. I think both books have their emphasis off in focusing on elite biographers, such as Plutarch and Suetonius, even though I consider the Gospels to actually be far more similar to popular-novelistic biographies, which I have discussed previously on this blog (here and here). I’ve been critical of some of Keener’s generic arguments about the Gospels in this previous article that I published (footnote 10), and regarding Licona’s book, Michael Kochenash (an alumnus from Claremont with whom I’ve corresponded previously) wrote in a recent review:

Art of Biography“[S]ome readers may also find it curious that Licona’s book lacks an engagement with several important classics scholars, most notably Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, Cambridge University Press, 2012). Accordingly, I expect that such readers—though appreciative of Licona’s contribution—will desire greater nuance. David Konstan and Robyn Walsh, for example, identify two different tendencies within ancient biographies: a civic tradition—which foregrounds the subject’s personality and moral character—and a subversive tradition—which foregrounds the subject’s wit using conversations and anecdotes (“Civic and Subversive Biography in Antiquity,” Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization, Cambridge University Press, 2016, 26-43). Konstan and Walsh locate Plutarch’s Lives in the former tradition—among the likes of Suetonius—and the Gospels in the latter, along with the Life of Homer, the Life of Aesop, and the Alexander Romance. Licona, however, does not acknowledge the distinction between Plutarch’s historiographical tone and the Gospels’ novelistic tone.”

Lydia McGrewThe other two apologetic books are Lydia McGrew’s Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts, and Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the New TestamentCountering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs. McGrew’s arguments about “undesigned coincidences” in the Gospels/Acts, as far as I am aware, have not been subjected to secular peer-review nor presented at professional organizations like the SBL. I have seen Internet apologists circulate the “undesigned coincidences” claim, however, and so I have been in correspondence with philosopher of religion Evan Fales about how to counter this slogan. Regarding Blomberg, I’ve countered his arguments about the authorship of the Gospels (here) and historical reliability of the Gospels (here) previously on this blog. 

There is a lot of money in Christianity and an in-built audience of readers, and so I’m not in the least bit surprised that apologetic books continue to be published. I hope that others will take the time to write critical reviews of these books, however, and I plan to write reviews of my own when time permits with my busy schedule.

-Matthew Ferguson

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Riverside Panel Debate about the Historical Reliability of the Bible

Alright, the recording of my panel debate in Riverside last month is now available online. Since there were some issues that arose with the video recording, I’ve decided to only upload the audio recording onto the blog. You can listen to it below:

I prepared PowerPoint slides for the debate, a few of which came up during the discussion (all of the slides, including those not brought up in the debate, can be accessed here). I was the only speaker to use PP slides during the debate, so no other material is being missed, if I include the relevant slides (with time markers) below.

At 18:55 during the recording, slide 101 was posted:

Slide 101

At 21:35 and 1:04:38, slide 113 was posted:

Slide 113

At 22:14, slide 106 was posted:

Slide 106

At 1:18:19, slide 108 was posted:

Slide 108

At 1:27:35, slide 109 was posted:

Slide 109

At 1:34:10, slide 104 was posted:

Slide 104

At 1:39:15, slide 118 was posted:

Slide 118

At 1:51:43, slide 119 was posted:

Slide 119

Overall, I think that the debate went well, and I was for the most part pleased with the performance on the skeptical side of the panel.

On the believer side of the panel, you may notice that the two speakers defended the historical reliability of the Old Testament, as literarily interpreted, in asserting things like the existence of a worldwide flood. They also defended a YEC creationist cosmology. I normally debate apologists who shy away from such claims, and instead focus on the New Testament, in defending things like the historicity Jesus’ resurrection. So this is the first debate I’ve had with the more creationist type.

There are two points during the debate, where I was speaking impromptu, that I would like to add clarification to:

The first is that at around 1:06:45 in the discussion, I made a small quibble regarding the end of the Gospel of John. NT scholars often consider chapter 21 of the gospel to be a later appendix to the text, on the grounds that John 20:30-31 seems to show signs of an original ending. During the debate, however, I said that the last “couple chapters” of John may be a later addition. This is incorrect. Rather, the last couple chapters show signs of two different endings, which suggests that the final chapter (21) is a later appendix. I had included discussion of this correctly on my blog in this previous essay (footnote 31), but I jumbled the description a bit during my oral presentation.

The second issue pertains to a point of comparison I made with the textual criticism of the New Testament and the Athenian orator Demosthenes, at a couple points during the debate:

What I was trying to emphasize is that the manuscripts of the New Testament often reveal interpolations (or variant readings between manuscripts) that are atypical of Classical texts. These can include things like titles added to the names of individuals, such as a variation of Mark 1:1 in which the title “son of God” is added to Jesus’ name, but is not included in all manuscripts.

Also noteworthy are variant readings that seem to have theological significance. For example, Hebrews 2:9 may have original read that Jesus died “apart from God” (χωρίς), as opposed to “by the grace of God” (χάρις). Although a difference only between two letters–omega and alpha–such a variant may have significant theological implications. Stating that Jesus died “apart from God” may be an echo of Jesus’ last words in Mark (15:34) and Matthew (27:46). To what degree the variant affects one’s views of Christian theology, I think, is just that: a matter of theology. But what I was emphasizing is that such a variant can have “theological significance,” regardless of how theologians choose to interpret it.

Finally, there are variations between the NT manuscripts that have historical-critical implications. For example, the longer ending in Mark 16:9-20 is not found in all manuscripts, which is historically significant, because if this passage is excluded there are no descriptions of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances in the Gospel of Mark. That means that such details are only found in the later gospels, which could reflect growing legendary development.

That said, I think that Demosthenes was a problematic point of comparison here (and I wish that I had used another Classical author as an example). Part of the problem is that scholars dispute whether the actual speeches spoken by Demosthenes during oration were the same as those later written down in text. Another issue is that, although Demosthenes’ speeches don’t usually have things akin to the theological variants, which I discussed in the NT manuscripts above, we often have more dispute over his exact wording. This is in part due to the fact that the language of Demosthenes is more complex than the NT, and also because we only have later manuscripts of his speeches available. When it comes to the matter of interpolation, also, there are certain passages in Demosthenes that may be later additions, added for rhetorical purpose, which undermine the notion that his speeches were transmitted as static texts.

I regret using Demosthenes as a point of comparison, therefore, since comparing the textual criticism of his speeches to those of the NT may be a matter of apples and oranges. Another issue when considering NT manuscripts in comparison to Classical manuscripts is that, although there are a lot of variant readings between the NT manuscripts, we often have a better chance at getting back to the original, since the multiplicity of manuscripts can expose where verses/passages were tampered with. When we lack the same multiplicity of Classical manuscripts, scholars often have to be more conjectural at approximating the original reading. But that being said, the point remains that the NT was hardly a case of static transmission, since scribes seem to have changed it at several points of transmission, which are significant for theological and historical criticism.

Other than those two points, however, I was overall pleased with my performance, and hope that readers of the blog enjoy the debate.

-Matthew Ferguson

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